Hail Ashes community! PAX West is now behind us, marking an exciting milestone for Ashes of Creation and the Intrepid team. It took a lot of courage to show a playable build of the game just four short months after the Kickstarter was funded, but Ashes charged full steam ahead with an awesome booth setup to make the public debut for the game. As a local Seattle resident, I was very fortunate to be at PAX West for the convention and I'm eager to share my experiences with the community.
In this article I'll provide my take on the state of the game build, the points where the hard work of the Intrepid team has shone the brightest, as well as some points where there's opportunity to improve as the team continues to iterate on design. As an initial disclaimer; it's very difficult to criticize flaws in a pre-Alpha game, as such flaws are to be expected and have plenty of time for iteration between now and launch. I do, however, want to provide a balanced view by highlighting certain areas of concern where the prototype design has opportunity for refinement. This may be a fairly lengthy read, but I hope I'll be able to include some interesting details that even dedicated followers of the game's development will find interesting.
The Overall Demo Experience
Ashes had a large booth in a prominent position within the main expo hall and attracted thousands of visitors who learned about the game and played the demos. There were both PvE and PvP demo experiences available, and at peak times the wait to play the Ashes demo was as long as 3 hours! There were two stations for the PvE demo (4 players) and one station for the PvP arena (4v4). The demo experiences themselves were about 10 minutes in duration (with about 5 minutes of downtime), so a reasonable estimate is that around 2,000 players experienced Ashes of Creation for the first time at PAX West! While waiting in line for the demo, players watched the following tutorial video which most of you have likely seen by now, but provides a good baseline of what to expect from the demo.
The aesthetic and layout of the booth was attractive; drawing in a lot of gamers, press, and other exhibitors who were curious to learn what the game was all about. Certainly from a promotional perspective PAX West came off as a huge success for Intrepid.
Look and Feel of the Game
I was fortunate to play both of the game demos several times, so I hope to effectively communicate my impressions from personal experience. The most noteworthy highlight which impressed me immediately upon my first contact with the game was the color palette and art style of the game which looked even better in person than on streams and pre-recorded video. The environmental hues and lighting used in the Autumn environment surrounding the village of Morrow's Mead impressed with a great balance between a semi-realistic art style and colorful tones which immediately evoke a high-fantasy setting.
In addition to the artistic style, player movement, camera controls, and basic physics felt polished for such an early build. To a certain extent this is likely an "out of the box" benefit of the Unreal 4 engine, but there were almost no issues with clipping or awkward collision. There was even preliminary implementation of physics for certain characters and objects in the world. The biggest critique of the overall control set was the excessive height and floaty-ness of jumping, which strained credibility even by gaming standards. Some other basic control scheme issues included combat abilities inconveniently bound to 6-9 keys, as well the harvesting ability placed on the action bar which would toggle your character into a non-combat state. Issues like these are easily resolved and should not represent any cause for concern.
The combat system shows a lot of potential, but demands added complexity over the functionality included in the PAX demo to really shine. In particular, the combo system suffers from some significant drawbacks in its initial implementation. To be clear, I am personally supportive of the motivating idea for the combo system. Ashes is a game with appropriate cooldowns on active combat abilities, requiring players to evaluate the optimal window of opportunity to activate triggered skills. As a consequence of a cooldown-based design, players fill combat windows between active ability usage with weapon combos. which only feature a brief internal cooldown The combo mechanic succeeded in making combat feel more action oriented despite the predominately tab-target based mechanics. However, this system suffered from too short a combo chain as well as inconsistent implementation across the four playable classes. The long-run design of the combo system should improve upon this by adding longer combo chains, additional windows of opportunity during each link in the combo chain, and the ability to augment combos by adding secondary or ancillary effects to attacks in the combo chain as part of character and weapon progression paths. Lastly, the preliminary interface was not ideal for the combo system, as it forced player attention towards the bottom of the screen when in combat rather than, more naturally, on the action itself near the center of the screen. This too will be easily remedied through future iterations of the interface as well as via the level of user customization planned for the game UI.
PvE Experience - Morrow's Mead and Sorrow's Hunger
In the PvE demo groups of 5-6 players (4 guests, 1 developer GM, and occasionally 1 member of the press) ventured through a 10 minute long PvE adventure in the volcanic wilderness around the settlement of Morrow's Mead. If you haven't had a chance to see the PvE demo give the following clip a watch. Thanks to Ninja Kitten 77 who helpfully extracted and uploaded this from one of the Intrepid live-streams during the convention.
The PvE demo highlighted a number of different gameplay pillars - harvesting, node development, combat, exploration, and combat. It's a huge challenge to distill the complexity and scope of a MMO intro an experience which is digestible in 10 minutes by someone who is unfamiliar with the setting, controls, background, or mechanics. To this end, the Ashes team did a really nice job of providing a brief narrative arc which was reminiscent of a condensed pen and paper campaign - as evidenced by the incorporation of a developer acting as both dungeon master and party member to narrate the demo and accompany the party.
During my own experiences with the PvE demo I was struck by the appeal of the landscape and surrounding area. I hope a zone which is aesthetically similar to the small area developed specifically for PAX will make it into the final game. The corrupted crystalline monster named Sorrow's Hunger which inhabited the final cavern in the demo was also an aesthetically appealing boss which deserves to play some role in the game's eventual release version.
In the early portion of the demo, players are introduced to the gathering system. My first impression of this system was that it felt clunky and unnecessary compared to more tried-and-true gathering mechanics. However, after some deeper conversations with the developers I better appreciate the underling goal motivating the design. The biggest weakness with the pre-alpha gathering system is it's activation as a toggleable mode which could be inadvertently activated during combat, rendering the character unable to take normal combat actions. The general idea is that resources will be rendered within the game world, but not otherwise prompted through the UI, so players will have to visually inspect the world around them in order to notice opportunities to collect potentially rare resources. The harvesting mode gives an area reticle which changes from red to green when the player hovers over (and is in-range of) a harvestable item. When harvesting, the timing-based combo minigame is also used. Like for weapon attacks, you do not have to land the combo in order to harvest resources, but successfully chaining well timed harvests increases the chance of obtaining rare materials from the resource node. An interesting point was highlighted where multiple players may compete to harvest the same scarce resource; this creates a risk-vs-reward scenario where attempting to land the combo opportunities could cause you to miss out on the resource to a player who harvests more quickly. As in the case of weapon attacks the interface needs improvement, but once this is resolved I think the harvesting system Intrepid has in mind could be intriguing, rewarding players who explore thoroughly and develop the awareness to notice resources within the game world.
Another point of emphasis for me from the PvE demo involved the use of exploration skills. Unlike harvesting where I see how the vision for the system has greater potential than what was showcased at PAX, I retain a concern regarding exploration skills that their long-term role may be less interesting than they first appear. In the PAX demo, Rangers could (occasionally) track enemy monsters, Clerics could cleanse areas by purging foul vapors, Mages could reveal arcane secrets within the game world, and Tanks can anticipate sources of danger where enemies will spawn. While these exploration skills were neat to use, I worry that their role may grow stale over the longer term. During the demo we had the benefit of a dungeon master to prompt the party using context clues for when our exploration skills would add value. In the live game Intrepid will have to rely on intuition or an interface-based signaling mechanism to instruct players when to use this ability. It's possible that such opportunities could be sufficiently disguised, rewarding players who have good intuition or keen observation. Furthermore, there is no downside to incorrectly using one of these abilities (except for a short cool-down), so my cynical expectation is that players may simply spam their exploration abilities on cooldown when visiting an unfamiliar region. Additionally, unless Intrepid works to build some degree of randomization into structured PvE content (which they may, as they have teased procedural content), the appropriate use of these exploration skills is something that players will figure out and document very quickly. In contrast, a potential upside to the design is that the usefulness of class-specific exploration skills could act as an incentive for players to form balanced parties rather than favoring unbalanced compositions with less diversity in exploration utility.
Lastly, the boss fight of the PvE demo was interesting for a number of reasons. As some early reviewers have pointed out, the boss' ability set was relatively simplistic, but this was likely a decision to ensure the demo would feature an appropriate level of difficulty for the diversity of players you would encounter at a convention like PAX (many of whom have no experience with PC games let alone MMOs). The boss arena had a grand cinematographic feel to it, and players were greeted when entering the area with an introductory cut-scene vignette to establish a bit of character prior to the battle. The wall of red mist which blocked players into the boss arena was purely a mechanical convenience for the PAX demo and is not a mechanic planned for the final game. However it's presence did raise questions, given the open world nature of the game and its dungeons, about how Intrepid plans to preserve and balance the challenge of boss fights while players are subject to the possibility of intrusion by additional allies or hostile player characters during boss encounters. The developers shared that they are working on some possibilities for how to add partial instancing, phasing, or some other mechanic in order to ensure that players experience the excitement and unpredictability of open-world encounters while adventuring to reach a boss, but do not experience frustration due to interference by other players when fighting the boss itself. As an avid Dark Souls player, I wouldn't be surprised to see them adapt a mechanic similar to the notorious fog walls which denote (and protect) boss encounters from PvP meddling in that excellent franchise.
PvP Experience - 4v4 Arena Combat
In the PvP demo two groups of four players each squared off in a large colosseum with the objective of controlling five obelisks while destroying their foes. This was a fairly standard capture-and-control scenario, but despite its similarly to previous battlegrounds or arenas in MMOs I felt that the size of the arena (which was fairly large for 4v4) and the novelty of Ashes' combat system still made the PvP demo feel fun and fresh. Once again, thanks to Ninja Kitten 77 who provides a clip of a full PvP match from the perspective of one of the Ashes developers playing a Ranger.
While the PvE experience was much more popular at the Ashes booth (the wait for PvE was considerably longer), I felt the PvP experience was more fun as it translated a bit better into a condensed 10 minute gameplay experience where the pacing of the PvE demo felt occasionally rushed. The most enjoyable aspect of PvP in my experience was the obvious interplay and combo opportunities which existed between party members even at this early stage in the game. Borrowing a theme from modern MOBAs, one of the most satisfying combat moments in Ashes was coordinating an ultimate dump to obliterate the entire party of opposition. The Tank's ability to AoE pull and stun enemies combined with the Mage's Earthquake and the Ranger's Hail of Arrows allowed for some really satisfying moments during group vs. group fights. Another positive regarding the combat system and PvP was the obvious degree to which the focus and combo system will be able to differentiate players and give the game a high skill cap. While a more intuitive interface will make combo execution easier, it's definitely more difficult to land precision combos during the higher pressure PvP scenario which will favor players who are able to keep a cool head during combat.
There were, however, some aspects of the PvP experience that I did not like. In PvE, the interface showed the precise health of your target while in PvP health values of enemies are obscured, showing only three general states of damage based on the representation of the health bar - full health (normal), wounded (cracks), and near death (broken). I understand the intention; as this adds uncertainty into exactly how close an enemy is to death and makes the split-second choices that players make in combat more interesting. Despite trying to see the positives for the design, I found the system to be personally frustrating, particularly when confronting enemies with an active source of healing. I was often left wondering whether my sustained attacks would eventually succeed in putting pressure on my opponent or whether I was simply wasting my time and should switch targets. The system provided a way to understand the general level of a target's health, but no way to understand the rate of change in that level which I found very frustrating as a player.
Another slight negative in my initial perception of PvP was that time-to-kill felt pretty long. I concede that it's almost asinine to discuss DPS potential or class balance at this stage in the game's development, but I wanted to comment on this in case it reflects a more fundamental signal of game design. The Cleric's healing potential rivaled and often outpaced the damage potential of the other classes, and particularly when aided by the Tank's Cover ability, a well functioning party could be near impossible to kill. I've seen similar situations emerge in many MMOs, where the combat sustainability of groups means that encounters ultimately come down to effectively farming focus and coordinating ultimate abilities to make headway against organized opposition. To be clear, what I've just described is tactically interesting, so it wouldn't be fatal to Ashes PvP if that's the way they go, but I personally hope they balance damage and defensiveness a little bit more towards decisive PvP encounters as they iterate on the design of character progression, abilities, and gear.
Those concerns aside, I had a great time playing the Ashes PvP demo and eagerly look forward to assembling a team of friends to challenge all comers in both arena and open-world encounters. In the next sections I will provide an overview of each of the four archetypes which I experienced at PAX.
Class Reactions - Tank
I really enjoyed the playing as the Tank archetype, while continuing to fervently hope that the name is purely a placeholder. The archetype offered a fun playstyle abilities providing strong battlefield control. In this pre-alpha version of the game there were no blocking or avoidance mechanics (passive or active) so the developers gave the tank dialed up mitigation to approximate the resilience which they want the class to have in the game. It was definitely enjoyable wading directly into the fray to snare, knock down, stun, pull, and generally harass enemies while protecting more vulnerable allies using the Cover skill. The Tank felt extremely survivable in PvP, I'm only barely exaggerating by saying I spent the majority of a 10-minute match below 50% health without dying.
There were some aspects of Tank gameplay which weren't great in the PAX build. Firstly, the cast time on the Impale ability was way too long and didn't have an obvious animation, so you were left waiting and wondering if your target would eventually show up. In contrast, the Shield Might ability felt extremely responsive and was really satisfying to use. Obviously these and other abilities will undergo major iterations between now and launch. Another point of frustration that I felt as the tank was the lack of a secondary target mechanic. Many games ranging from World of Warcraft to SWTOR have offered a "focus target", allowing players to keep a friendly player or NPC handy for non-offensive abilities. Taking this mechanic a step further, Warhammer Online had a full-fledged defensive target mechanic where certain abilities were pre-configured to affect that target rather than the primary offensive target. The Tank's Cover ability was an example case where I wished I had something like this as the ability was powerful for group play but inconvenient to use as it required switching primary targets to utilize. I hope that Intrepid considers adding a secondary targeting feature to improve quality of life while preserving difficulty and complexity in combat scenarios through different channels.
Lastly, I think it's fair to say that the combo system doesn't feel quite as good on melee characters currently as it does on ranged archetypes like the Mage or Ranger. With the Tank's faster attack animation, the speed of the combo bar increased while decreasing the window of opportunity to land combo chains. In many ways, I liked the added challenge and pacing this gave the Tank's gameplay, but it felt less controlled and predictable when contrasted with the comparatively easy comboing on the Mage and Ranger. The potential of the combo system is such that it will feel really satisfying for melee characters, if Intrepid can strike the right balance between attack speed and combo timing.
Class Reactions - Cleric
The Cleric was probably the strongest all-around archetype in the demo, balancing a mix of offensive potential with really potent healing and group utility. While mostly a pure healer, several of the Cleric abilities like Lifeline, Stolen Blessing, and Divine Form provided damage and leeching mechanics making this archetype a master of sustain. The Clerics ultimate was arguably the strongest of all four classes, dealing pulsing AoE damage while healing allies and buffing the Cleric's outgoing damage. To somewhat counter-balance the power of this ultimate ability, the Cleric had the hardest time of all classes (at least in my experience) building focus to unlock it's use. The staff (a melee weapon) didn't seem particularly suited to the cleric play-style and with such a wealth of active abilities to rotate through I found myself only infrequently using the weapon's native ability.
I do have one significant concern about the Cleric design from the PAX demo which I hope is not indicative of Intrepid's long-term vision for game mechanics. The Cleric's resurrection ability, Endow Life, was usable in combat and featured a short cast time with only a moderate cooldown. The optimist in me assumes that this balance decision prioritized quality of life during the PAX demo when players with a wide variety of skill levels might be dying frequently. The cynic in me worries that this suggests a major concern for PvP pacing and balance. I have seen first-hand evidence of games where the ease of combat resurrection turns PvP into a stalemate where the ability to recover and sustain comes at the expense of dynamism and decisiveness in gameplay. I personally hope that the resurrection mechanics available in Ashes of Creation will incorporate combat restrictions, long cast times or cooldowns, heavy resource costs, or some combination of the above.
Given the duality of use already inherent in many of the Cleric's ability, I expect this will be a very popular primary archetype upon which to build a character by augmenting these core healing skills with additional offensive potential.
Class Reactions - Mage
The Mage had the most well-rounded skill set for both PvE and PvE experiences, featuring great combo potential using interplay between the available active abilities to stay in control of small-scale PvP encounters. The most enjoyable Mage combo was using Ice Prison to immobilize enemies for a targeted Arch Lightning or Quake (with sufficient Focus). The Spellbook was an easy weapon for maintaining range and generating focus, so building and unleashing devastating combos gave Mage combat the most satisfying pacing of any archetype.
The combination of Escape (teleport) and After Image (invulnerability) provided a borderline overpowered set of survival tools. My suspicion is that the Mage's After Image was only temporarily configured to provide invulnerability since confirmed defensive mechanics like dodge or block were not yet available in the PAX build of the game. Thankfully (unlike certain recent games) the Mage's teleport ability incorporates a reasonable cooldown preventing it from being abused in PvP situations.
The Mage (at least in its current form) will definitely appeal to players who value mobility, as the Teleport ability was usable mid-jump and allowed the player to reach otherwise inaccessible ledges which will be great for explorers and PvPers alike.
Class Reactions - Ranger
The Ranger's gameplay shared several elements in common with that of the Mage, as both featured a ranged weapon with comparatively easy focus generation combined. Also similar to the Mage, the Ranger provided good burst damage potential with the ability to use Marked Arrow, Snare (which is actually a root and not a snare), Sniper's Eye, and Power Shot for impressive burst damage.
Outside of the ideal circumstances when the Ranger could chain abilities on a defenseless target, the Ranger struggled a bit with more defensive foes with overall less damage output than the Mage as well as less defensive utility. In general, I found the Ranger to have a higher damage ceiling than the mage, but less reliability in combat. From a style perspective, however, I felt that the Ranger had the most fluid animations and the nicest looking armor set, so playing the Ranger class in the PAX build had a really enjoyable feel.
Hands down my favorite Ranger ability is Fleeting Shot which, as a movement skill, lacks flexibility compared to the Mage's teleport but is really satisfying to use in combat and gives the Ranger the ability to quickly escape a pursuing enemy with a quick redirection. It reminded me of the Witch Hunter's Declare Anathema from Warhammer Online which I look back on fondly as a super tasty ability.
To conclude this recap, I'd like to congratulate (or apologize to) anyone who has managed to stay with me this far. I'm really happy to say how impressed I was with Ashes of Creation throughout the weekend both in terms of the presentation and quality of gameplay experience but especially in terms of the enthusiasm and level with which the developers engaged with fans who stopped by the booth. Many studios would send a small contingent of higher-profile developers while largely staffing the booth with temporary PR representatives, but Intrepid arrived in force, bringing a full entourage of designers, artists, and programmers who had diverse and engaging perspectives which they were happy to share with fans.
The folks at Intrepid have an openness and honesty when discussing their game which is really refreshing in contrast to more staged interactions for larger (budget-wise) titles. I would like to congratulate them on their courage and hard work which resulted in a really successful PAX and the well-deserved plaudits which I'm confident they will receive from press and fans. My experience at the convention reaffirmed my decision to invest in the Ashes of Creation community and I can't wait to see where things go from here.
Thanks again for reading, and please don't hesitate to share your thoughts or questions in the comments and I'll try to answer anything I can from what I remember!